Combining acoustic tracking and LiDAR to study bat flight behaviour in three-dimensional space

Hermans, Claire; Koblitz, Jens C.; Bartholomeus, Harm; Stilz, Peter; Visser, Marcel E.; Spoelstra, Kamiel


Background: Habitat structure strongly influences niche differentiation, facilitates predator avoidance, and drives species-specific foraging strategies of bats. Vegetation structure is also a strong driver of echolocation call characteristics. The fine-scale assessment of how bats utilise such structures in their natural habitat is instrumental in understanding how habitat composition shapes flight- and acoustic behaviour. However, it is notoriously difficult to study their species-habitat relationship in situ. Methods: Here, we describe a methodology combining Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) to characterise three-dimensional vegetation structure and acoustic tracking to map bat behaviour. This makes it possible to study fine-scale use of habitat by bats, which is essential to understand spatial niche segregation in bats. Bats were acoustically tracked with microphone arrays and bat calls were classified to bat guild using automated identification. We did this in multiple LiDAR scanned vegetation plots in forest edge habitat. The datasets were spatially aligned to calculate the distance between bats’ positions and vegetation structures. Results: Our results are a proof of concept of combining LiDAR with acoustic tracking. Although it entails challenges with combining mass-volumes of fine-scale bat movements and vegetation information, we show the feasibility and potential of combining those two methods through two case studies. The first one shows stereotyped flight patterns of pipistrelles around tree trunks, while the second one presents the distance that bats keep to the vegetation in the presence of artificial light. Conclusion: By combining bat guild specific spatial behaviour with precise information on vegetation structure, the bat guild specific response to habitat characteristics can be studied in great detail. This opens up the possibility to address yet unanswered questions on bat behaviour, such as niche segregation or response to abiotic factors in interaction with natural vegetation. This combination of techniques can also pave the way for other applications linking movement patterns of other vocalizing animals and 3D space reconstruction.